|A NATIONAL TREASURE REDISCOVERED IN NEW JERSEY|
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY
by Agee while ensconced in a safe
at the NATIONAL HOTEL in Frenchtown, New Jersey is a
matter of personal
conjecture. What is known to be true is that the renowned poet,
journalist and author spent the better part of 1938 writing this
powerful piece of American prose, about his experiences in the
depression era south, while living just a few steps from the hotel.
There is certainly enough about the structure that suggests the French
Quarter or Antebellum grandeur, and given Agee’s appreciation of late
nights and liquor, one might easily assume that the National was the
favored well of intemperance and inspiration.
WHO AMONG THIS READERSHIP WOULD NOT ENJOY A COCKTAIL AND A CONVERSATION AT THIS GORGEOUS BAR?
relationship with the property began in 1990. Disenchantment
with the frenetic pace of life in the northern tier of the state, and a
bout of emotional restlessness caused me to seek the quiet refuge of
this pleasant setting on the banks of the Delaware River. Having spent
the early part of my life living in a small New Jersey town, and later
on in New York City, I appreciated the convenience of having the
staples of life within walking distance. And both bars at the NATIONAL HOTEL were just a
matter of a short stretch of the legs. Depending on
the season, or perhaps my mood, I could choose the subtle elegance of
the upstairs taproom or I could retreat to the rustic confines of the Rathskeller Pub. And if I found
myself conflicted by my usual mercurial
and indecisive disposition, I could go on a pub crawl without ever
leaving the building.
FRENCHTOWN HAS AN UNDENIABLE CHARM
WITHOUT BEING CLOYING
What is probably the most striking fact about the NATIONAL HOTEL is that exists within the boundaries of the Garden State. Surviving stage coach stops and restored nineteenth century inns are commonplace throughout New England and the surrounding Mid Atlantic region; but the nature of commerce and development in New Jersey has left only a handful of these significant properties intact. And like so many other storied locations, the NATIONAL was on the brink of being lost to the pages of history and the fond memories of loyal patrons. In March of 2008 it was closed, the victim of the stark economic realities facing the nation.
Since 1850 this venerable institution had been a dependable source of safe haven and hospitality. It had survived fire, floods, the Crash of 29 and the crash of a truck through its front door in 84. Lovers had gathered here to toast new beginnings, lifelong comrades would drink to those that had passed, and generations of young men would raise a parting glass before leaving to face fire at Antietam, the Argonne, Guadalcanal, Incheon, Khe Sanh and countless other battlefields. Needless to say, its closing, as well as its reopening, would have a profound and palpable effect on the community.
On Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009 while the voters of New Jersey were electing a new governor, the citizens of Frenchtown were embracing an old friend. At approximately 2:00 pm Eastern Standard Time the first two official customers were hoisting their celebratory bottles of domestic lager at the Rathskeller Bar. Throughout the rest of the day and into the late hours of the night a steady stream of former regulars and town’s people stopped by to get reacquainted, and to express their heartfelt gratitude to Pete and Marie D’Costa, the couple responsible for the recovery and revitalization of the property. The event felt much more like a church supper than a restaurant opening, and therein lies the beauty and magic of the place.
KIM PHILLIPS WITH CAP AND HENRY WEAVER ATTEND THE REBIRTH
At some point in between pints I recalled a bit of my own bar stool musings, words that were used to define the quality of tavern life in an editorial published in first issue of this magazine.
“The worth of a public house is measured by the efforts of its patrons, owners and staff to establish a space that welcomes everyone as equals and treats all who enter with the same regard and respect. It is a community that provides comfort, wise counsel and camaraderie. It is the family front porch of a bygone era, and the parliament of the common man.” –
In Frenchtown . . . it is THE NATIONAL HOTEL
THE HEARTH AND WOODSTOVE DOWNSTAIRS IN THE RATHSKELLER
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